An Indian Summer of Cricket
By Malcolm McGregor
Barrallier Books, $39.50
ISBN 9780987168559

For those who think that sport can be a metaphor for life, this is the best sort of book about sport. It’s the perfect cricket book for those who are only moderately interested in the game itself but fascinated by its personalities, dramas and place in the psyche of nations. Malcolm McGregor’s writing about cricket resembles Henry Blofeld’s commentary: it starts and finishes with the sport but in the course of a match covers almost every subject that could possibly be prompted by going to the game. Of course, had it been just a ball-by-ball, wicket-by-wicket account of last summer’s Australia versus India Test series, it would hardly have qualified for a Spectator Australia review!

Between discoursing on cricket, McGregor slips in vivid pen-portraits of Kim Beazley, Carmen Lawrence, Nick Minchin, Ian McLachlan, Roger Bannister and numerous others. It’s hardly standard fare in a cricket book but this, after all, is a meditation prompted by cricket from one of the most perceptive political analysts I have ever met. He offers shrewd insights into the changing character of the Australian army plus a revisionist assessment of the relative military merits of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant; again, hardly Wisden but apt from a serving army colonel who is currently running the School of Land Warfare in Canberra.

Above all, this is a personal diary of a tumultuous summer that started with the anticipation of a heroic sporting contest and became an audit of the author’s life and times. McGregor expected a World Cup-winning India to have the measure of an Ashes-losing Australia. It’s a rare Australian who would admit to barracking for the other team, but that’s what McGregor owns up to in what turns out to be a brave book about a brave life, as well as the story of a sporting contest that never quite lived up to expectations.

For many Australians, I suspect, cricket has become a backdrop to some of life’s watershed moments. For me, watching Sheffield Shield matches encapsulated the blessed indolence of university life. At Oxford, I found myself captaining the Queen’s College Middle Common Room XI because, in those days, sport was the only way to get the bar open between 2 and 5 p.m. For McGregor, more significantly, cricket seems to have become a mystical bond with the father who had died when he was in primary school and whose last gift, a bat, he still cherishes.

There’s an ingrained tendency to regard cricket as more than mere sport. Otherwise, how could anyone justify spending five days at a Test match? McGregor certainly manages to pack a lot into his 25 days or so at the cricket, catching up with old friends, making new ones, and reflecting on the state of the game and the world.

McGregor wanted this series to be cricket at its best, but that’s not how it turned out. He tries hard to appreciate the Australian team and to salute their success but his heart is clearly with Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid, the great Indian batsmen who are past their prime. His disappointment with the series segues into disappointment with the commercialisation of cricket, the failures of politicians and political parties, the limits to friendship and the frustrations of change that isn’t always for the better. At many levels, this is an elegant reflection on coming to terms with dashed hopes and unrealised expectations.

Like the best cricket commentary, it’s the digressions that make the story. One concerns Rahul Dravid’s Bradman oration given at the Australian War Memorial. To McGregor, Dravid’s prose reached the heights his batting no longer could. It was a celebration of the place of cricket in the life of India. As told by McGregor, Dravid’s failures with the bat are lost in the greater story which becomes a hymn of gratitude for what sport can do for a man and for a nation.

Eventually, the struggle to preserve what’s worthy while everything else changes envelopes McGregor himself. While India’s tour disintegrated, McGregor was coming apart too. As he writes in the last chapter, back in 1985 he’d been diagnosed as transgendered but had resolved, in his own words, to ‘man up’ and get on with life. Last summer, the strain of trying to be what, deep down, he was not became too much. Between the end of the series and finishing the book, faced with total personal collapse or a leap into the unknown, Malcolm has become Cate. Those who knew him will be shocked, McGregor writes, but not offended, she hopes.

Throughout the book, McGregor has wrestled with the impact of change on identity. Is the 20-over game the real thing, for instance? After some struggle, this instinctive traditionalist tentatively and at times reluctantly concludes that, yes, it is because enough of Test cricket’s concentration, struggle and artistry have survived the translation. How much harder must it have been to deal with her own inner angst and to have concluded that change wasn’t just unavoidable but desirable? All who have ever been on the precipice of changing their lives could benefit from another book from McGregor focusing on this, the biggest change imaginable.

How do institutions based on obedience to authority, respect for tradition and loyalty to comrades even survive, let alone flourish, in a world that’s much more attuned to individual autonomy and authenticity? How do we encourage people to be selfless when we won’t even let them be hard on themselves? These doubts, I suspect, stem from lack of sufficient faith in the power of our ideals and in our capacity to adapt. McGregor’s life might actually be answering questions that the book merely poses.

With barely a blink, the army has accommodated her personal changes. After all, McGregor’s professionalism and patriotism has not changed one bit, though much else have. Field Marshall Slim once remarked that moral courage is a higher and rarer virtue than physical bravery. Army chief General David Morrison’s launch of this book is a fitting salute to courage. How’s that for an institution that is so often supposed to be out of touch?

Tony Abbott has been leader of the federal Liberal party for three years and has known Malcolm McGregor for three decades.